See Google's Car Crash!
Written by Harry Fairhead   
Saturday, 12 March 2016

The recent news of the first car crash involving a Google self-driving car was met with understanding - it hit a bus, who hasn't. Now we have a video of the event and it isn't quite as clear cut where the blame lies. 

Google's self driving car has completed miles and miles of safe driving and when something has happened it has usually been reported that it was the human driver at the wheel or that some other vehicle ran into it. This is the first incident that Google admits is the driving software's fault. 

For this reason its important. 

What happened is that the car was trying to turn right but it encountered an obstruction in the lane and had to merge left. It "expected" a bus in the lane to give way and allow it to merge but the bus didn't and a low speed side swipe crash occurred.  

Chris Urmson, the man in charge of the self driving project said:

We clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t have been a collision … We saw the bus, we tracked the bus, we thought the bus was going to slow down, we started to pull out, there was some momentum involved.

 Google's report on the incident says:

"On February 14, our vehicle was driving autonomously and had pulled toward the right-hand curb to prepare for a right turn. It then detected sandbags near a storm drain blocking its path, so it needed to come to a stop. After waiting for some other vehicles to pass, our vehicle, still in autonomous mode, began angling back toward the center of the lane at around 2 mph -- and made contact with the side of a passing bus traveling at 15 mph. Our car had detected the approaching bus, but predicted that it would yield to us because we were ahead of it."

You just have to have sympathy - who hasn't expected a bus to yield only to discover that a bus is big enough to muscle its way through. Even the Google report takes this point of view:

"Our test driver, who had been watching the bus in the mirror, also expected the bus to slow or stop. And we can imagine the bus driver assumed we were going to stay put. Unfortunately, all these assumptions led us to the same spot in the lane at the same time. This type of misunderstanding happens between human drivers on the road every day."

Now take a look at the video. It was filmed by the cameras in the bus and it isn't very easy to see what is happening. 

When the video starts off you can see Google's white Lexus RX SUV in the right-hand lane so close to the kerb as to be almost parked.

carcrash0

 

At about 7 seconds in you can see the car is just about starting to move into the left-hand lane as the bus passes it. The camera view point then changes to inside the bus and at about 21 seconds you can just about see the car strike the side of the bus and the passengers react to it.

 

carcrash1a

 

After this we have the reaction of the driver and the damage that resulted. 

 

So now what do you think? 

Notice that this was a slow speed collision and the car hit the bus in the middle. This implies that it had plenty of time to "see" that the bus had not yielded. The car effectively drove into the bus well after it had passed it. Although it isn't possible to be certain, it seems very likely that a human driver might have realized that the bus wasn't going to yield, or rather hadn't yielded and would have slammed on the brakes. This also raises the question of what the safety driver was thinking? Perhaps he was taken by surprise, but again it seems unlikely that he had no idea that the bus wasn't going to yield.

I admit that it is difficult to judge from the video, but at the very least it makes the presentation of the incident seem a little fanciful, to say the least. Yes, buses are a different case and us humans probably do misread them once or twice before learning to make allowances for them. But we tend not to drive into the middle of them after they have passed us!

It is clear the software needs tweaking big time. Surely there is some sort of overall collison prediction? After all the car has lidar so it knows where the bus is at all times and it knows its velocity vector. Try asking any games developer how to detect a forthcoming collision.

 carcrash1

More Information

Google Self-Driving Car Project Monthly Report

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Last Updated ( Saturday, 12 March 2016 )